This is a good “why are you like this” challenge:
If I’d been called on to run a D&D campaign at age 10 or 12,
these are the images and plots I would have drawn on to
provide the inspiration for my game. […] What were your earliest
childhood fantasy inspirations? What did your fantasy world
look like back then?
—DIY and Dragons
I think these are roughly in order of age of discovery, publication date’s often very different. I was… the word schools liked was “precocious”, which just means I was years and years ahead of the curriculum designed for morons and they had no idea how to educate me, any more than an ape could educate a mere Human. The Tarzan problem. So I read and watched whatever I liked, and grew up weird. Giving me D&D and then Gamma World was just giving a junkie an endless needle.
- Godzilla (1954): This is what dragons are like. Any kind of giant, dinosaur, or kaiju is a catastrophe you run from, not a “monster” you fight from horseback, those are just wyverns. I saw basically every monster movie and some sentai on KSTW-11, which only had budget for old movies and reruns.
Star Wars (1977), Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, by Alan Dean Foster (1978), Empire Strikes Back (1980): High-tech but just fantasy activity; as I learned later, Star Wars is The Hidden Fortress with spaceships, many scenes are shot-for-shot remakes.
I’m trying to think what I learned from this, and I think it’s that every alignment can be cool. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Leia are Chaos, and they’re cool, tho if Leia wins she’ll establish a tyrannical monarchy again which is no good. Han Solo is Neutral, and he’s cooler than cool, and shoots first. Darth Vader is Order, choking out all dissension, and he’s THE COOLEST. Luke and Grand Moff Tarkin suck, but you can’t have everyone be cool or nobody is.
Figure out your antagonists’ motives, take their affectations and crank them up to 11, and you have an EPIC hero or villain. Pity they never made any more Star Wars movies, I might’ve liked to see Revenge of the Jedi. I will take no email or comments to the contrary.
Bullfinch’s Mythology: While now it’s “oh that old thing”, Bullfinch did a fantastic job of covering Greek/Roman (more Greek, but with Roman names; Roman syncretism mapped names to their gods but their practices were different), Norse, and Arthurian mythos, including a lot of the poetry and literature that referenced them in the 2000 years since. Academic mythology books are too concerned with period beliefs and not how those ideas are used in later works, so they’re less gameable. The art in Bullfinch’s is also fantastic.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter of Mars, Tarzan of the Apes, Pellucidar: You know why everyone in fantasy worlds speaks Common? Because the Barsoomians have a common language by way of telepathy; Carter’s telepathy’s a little stronger than usual, so he can project it, but they all have it. The ruined cities, falling civilization, a hero trying to bring back glories, toppling false religions, it had it all. Tarzan’s ruined cities and ancient civilizations hidden in the jungle were awesome, literally set much of my campaign style. Pellucidar was so weird and dream-like, I barely understood it, but a plausible way for dinosaurs, Humans, and evil Mahars to coexist was amazing, too. It’s not a coincidence Eric J. Holmes, editor of Dungeons & Dragons Basic set, wrote a Pellucidar novel.
National Geographic: I had access to a big stack of old NatGeo from ’40s to ’70s. In particular, I devoured anything about Ancient Rome, Egypt, Greece, Mayans, & Aztecs. NatGeo of the time was astoundingly West-oriented and racist; I would’ve loved to know more about China, Japan, Korea, & India, but they were barely touched on. Africa was only ever presented as wilderness or savages, zero mention of modern cities. I have an eternal love of giant detailed maps from this time.
ElfQuest (1978): Very pretty, cutesy comics about cuddly little Wood Elves and their Wolf pets… Ha ha no, I lie, they’re vicious, backstabbing, eternally horny/drunk little bastards, the Trolls (more like Dwarfs) are venal scumbags, Preservers (Fairies) are insane pests, High Elves are supernatural psychopath villains, and Humans are the dumbest, meanest animals on 2 legs. Here’s how to throw all your dumb Tolkien racist shit out and have murderous Keebler Elves.
Michael Moorcock: The silver Elric books and bronze Count Brass books, I grabbed as soon as each new one came out, devoured them. Elric’s world is full of weird mystical secrets you can grab hold of, bargain with, steal, and use. Horrible monsters and demons are summoned up by fool wizards for lust or revenge, and spread Chaos in the world. Hooray, Chaos! We see in the decayed post-apocalypse of Count Brass that Order is just as poisonous, and can’t be recovered from. I didn’t encounter Moorcock’s weirder stuff like Jerry Cornelius until much later, presumably the local hillbilly bookstores didn’t order them.
Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950): Literally my model of the megadungeon. The structure seems to go on forever, up and down, buried into the Earth. Strange structures poke out everywhere, mapping beyond the known halls is impossible. The inhabitants are mad. There’s little/no magic or monsters in the books, but they feel like there’s magic & monsters everywhere. Don’t read past the 2nd book, I didn’t as a yout’ and much later I didn’t like Titus Alone.
Katherine Kurtz, Deryni Rising (1970): Low fantasy proto-England with swordfights, witchcraft & ritual magic, treachery. The ongoing fetishization of monarchy and religion, and an “actual miracle”, finally soured me on the series, but the early books made it clear these are Human (or Deryni) fabrications. The consistent, low-powered but useful “magic” (or psionics, or mutant powers) are a good way to model magic in games. The Deryni are High Elves who don’t suck.
Gamma World (1978): The game that defined how I see role-playing games. Harsh, brutal, shockingly beautiful at times, erratic, full of impossible, anachronistic references. It’s fun, it’s not reality. Unspeakably deadly in most places, but two medieval dipshits having at each other with swords will take half an hour to whittle their HP down to nothing, and then the survivor will take months to heal; so you learn to cheat, to use poisons, artifacts, traps, tame monsters as pets, risk getting more mutations, so you can survive.
Robert Asprin & Lynn Abbey, Thieves World (1978): Absolutely should never have been given to an impressionable young Mark. Cruelty, treachery, black magic, and of course thievery in a corrupt hellhole end-of-the-Empire city called Sanctuary. Pretty much all my fantasy cities are a bit of Sanctuary.
A very similar influence I encountered later was Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser. But I didn’t read those until late ’80s.
Thundarr the Barbarian (1980): The most formative thing possible. Every frame of even the opening title is inspirational. Jack Kirby designed this, and it shows. A mix of Gamma World, magic, Burroughs-type ruins, superhuman heroes.
“In the year 1994, from outer space comes a runaway planet,
hurtling between the Earth and the Moon, unleashing cosmic
destruction! Man’s civilization is cast in ruins! 2000 years
later, Earth is reborn, a strange new world rises from the
old, a world of savagery, super-science, and sorcery! But one
man bursts his bonds to fight for justice! With his companions
Ookla the Mok, and Princess Ariel, he pits his strength, his
courage, and his fabulous Sun Sword against the forces of evil!”
- Clash of the Titans (1981): Ray Harryhausen’s masterpiece. The monsters are amazing, the gods are meddling jerks but not the center of attention, more amazing monsters, the dumb-ass hero and chick yada yada another amazing monster! The myths I’d read so much about were filmed. Pity that Perseus & Andromeda are so much more wooden than the monsters. The gods do indeed play games with the lives of mortals.
Heavy Metal (1981): I’d seen maybe one issue of the magazine at this time, it was definitely not sold to minors. But somehow I got into the movie, and when it came out on tape I got it and rewatched endlessly. The Lock-Nar itself is irrelevant, the framing story is silly. But “Den of Neverwhere”, “Taarna”, and to some extent “Captain Stern” and “So Beautiful So Dangerous” (“wanna do some nyborg?”) are all peak young Mark. “Harry Canyon” (ha) is great but I don’t really do urban SF. I’ve never found any real use for “B-17”.
Neil Hancock, Greyfax Grimwald (1982): What looks like a cute talking-animals and Dwarf book becomes something much deeper, as it turns into a sort of Buddhist Journey to the West-ish fantasy adventure. Collides fairy-world with real-world and actually made me think about what these worlds are. Not as gonzo as everything else here, probably the only thing with any philosophical merit.
Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982): Surreal, dream-like, horrifying imagery, a true Mythic Underworld dungeon, a crazy Warlock, a nigh-invincible Dragon. And then there’s the game system, which was a perfect little marvel of design, Skill, Stamina, Luck, 2d6, that’s all you need (for fighter/rogues in a dungeon crawl), one of the biggest influences on how I make my own games.
The Day After (1983): … 14 years later, there’s a scene in The Fifth Element where Leeloo types “WAR” into the encyclopedia, and just breaks down screaming & crying on seeing what Humans do to each other. That was me.
“WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU ALL?!” I asked, and keep asking, and they had no answers. And this is, like, an unreasonably optimistic scenario of nuclear war, because anyone gets to live long enough to wrap their dead family in plastic bags and worry about cancer, or looters eating fallout-poisoned food. So, growing up I had zero expectation that I’d live to see 2000, let alone another score of years after. Maybe we didn’t, and this is a final dream.
If I’d known about Ralph Baksi’s Wizards, it would fit right in, but I didn’t see that until mid-to-late ’80s.
I was already reading H. Beam Piper’s books by ’82, but I definitely didn’t read Space Viking or Empire until late ’80s, which are the ones that fit my ethos.
Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith (discovered thru X2 Castle Amber) were late ’80s for sure. I know precisely that I read “At the Mountains of Madness” in 1986.
Raaka’tu, Zork, Ultima, Wizardry, and more computer games certainly influenced how I do videogames, but they didn’t teach me much world-building.
The D&D and GW games I ran early on were very formulaic retreads of B1 In Search of the Unknown, B4 Lost City, or GW1 Legion of Gold modules. Later I learned to make more creative worlds, but they’re still much the same framework & generated world madness.
I’ve probably never run a game which wasn’t: A) Post-apocalypse, often centuries, millennia later; or B) Just pre-apocalypse, and there’s nothing you can do about it but your actions are probably futile. Vast military horrors lurking on the edge of your vision.
I’ve rarely run anything with legitimate authorities above town headman who aren’t dead, completely corrupted, or too distant to care. Instead the adventurers, usually venal thieves and bastards, are the only force strong enough to fight the worse guy “villains”. I suppose some Call of Cthulhu, but I usually outfit the group for an expedition into weird lands, or they’re trapped in some Old One or Fungi from Yuggoth laboratory or whatever. I had a “king” and court in a Dungeons & Zombies game, but the entire power structure was like 20 knights including our new recruit PCs, and the necromancers and alien gods raising millions of ravenous dead, and the chittering spidery goblins in the dark, had other ideas.
Usually my games start out looking like medieval, ancient, stone age, or sorta spacey fantasy, and you rapidly learn the world was once very different from that. You get into other lands, or old bases full of artifacts from the time before. You go into space, sometimes, and find the colony worlds have their own problems. But you still keep looting tombs/bases and building power, because you live in the world you’ve been left, not the peaceful one you want.